HL Deb 15 May 2000 vol 613 cc6-9

3.1 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the statement by the Lord Bassam of Brighton on 10th April (HL Deb, col. 9) that "prison works" is consistent with the finding of Home Office Research Study No 187 that the largest reductions in offending occur in community based programmes.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, as I said to the noble Lord on 10th April we believe that prison can be a positive experience and our aim, and that of the Prison Service, is to make it work. Although Home Office Research Study No.187 provides evidence that community-based programmes generally show better results in reducing offending, programmes which take account of "what works" principles can be successful in reducing offending in any treatment setting. There is considerable evidence that programmes in prison can be effective, as can the provision of constructive regimes. Indeed, international research shows that good programmes which are delivered well can reduce re-offending by up to 33 per cent.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, the subtle use of the English language has never failed to amuse me. If prison works, why has there been such a huge rise in serious crime in this country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am sure that there are many reasons for increases in crime across the United Kingdom. However, this Government's commitment and determination to tackle all of those issues remain unaltered. We shall continue to press through and put in place effective crime reduction programmes. There is little doubt that crime reduction programmes will in the longer term have a most profound effect and impact on levels of crime.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the oft repeated statement that prison is frequently an expensive means of making bad people worse? Does he accept that Parliament has accepted that proposition in legislation; namely, the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which makes prison the sentence of last resort?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, prison may well be a sentence of last resort, but it is an effective and necessary sentence. I would like the noble and learned Lord and others to say what is the alternative for those who are convicted of offences, particularly serious offences. Prison constitutes an expensive provision, but it is necessary.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, where possible, punishment in the community is preferable to punishment in prison for all kinds of reasons? Has he been able to assess, as yet, the effect of the probation programmes which are run according to the "what works" principles, and which he has said can be successful? But are they? What is the national programme to extend probation practice according to that principle?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we believe that "what works" is an effective programme. Research evidence shows that properly conducted offender treatment programmes can have a significant impact on reconviction rates, whether those programmes are conducted in prison or in the community. The research literature reveals a broad consensus of about a 10 per cent typical reduction in reconviction rates, compared with those offenders who do not attend the programmes. The "what works" initiative that we are introducing provides better planned, targeted and delivered programmes to bring down overall conviction rates. These programmes are based on methods known to stand the best chance of reducing reoffending. It is our intention to start introducing the first of these programmes later this month.

Lord Elton

My Lords, given that the average cost of a custodial sentence is £2,070 a month, according to government figures, will the Government spend a small percentage of the extra money that is necessary to ensure that the majority of prison sentences have the chance of proving to be the positive experience which the noble Lord tells us they are in terms of education, out of cell time and constructive work? Any money that is left over could be best spent in stopping people becoming criminals altogether.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I entirely agree with the final point that the noble Lord made. He speaks with great wisdom on the subject. This Government's programme is all about improving the purposive nature of people's time spent in custodial sentences. Between 1997 and 1999 we have managed to add an extra 20,000 teaching hours across the prison estate. That is part of our general programme. We must invest in education and training as we can demonstrate a clear and proven track record that that has the best effect in terms of what happens to prisoners when they leave prison and try to access the world of work. We must continue that work and put more money into crime reduction in the community. Those are the important points of our programme.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister think that short custodial sentences are a positive experience for graffiti artists, or does he consider on the contrary that it would be better to give those people community service to enable them to remove the graffiti which has been daubed on walls by other people?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am sure it would be much better to encourage graffiti artists to produce more mainstream art. I am not aware that a large number of graffiti artists are incarcerated within the prison estate. It is often felt that we lock up people unnecessarily. The favourite example which is given is that of fine defaulters. As of today of a prison population of some 64,000 just 56 are fine defaulters.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, notwithstanding what has been said about rehabilitation and education, does the Minister agree that there will always be prisoners who, on leaving prison, will return to society embittered against authority; or perhaps having learned new ways of committing crime from fellow prisoners; or who may have become drug addicts during their time inside, all of whom are likely to reoffend? Is not that how prison works in a rather unattractive way?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord contributes to an important and interesting aspect of the debate. Of course there will be prisoners who feel embittered as a result of being in prison. Our task, and that of any government, must be to try to make that experience as positive as possible. We should never give up on this issue. As regards drugs and prison, we have now had some considerable success in reducing the quantity of drugs used in prison. Over the past two years we have reduced drugs found through mandatory drugs testing from 24 per cent to 14 per cent. I believe that that will have a desirable long-term impact on reconviction rates.

The Lord Bishop of Bristol

My Lords, in light of the Prison Service targets for purposeful activity, will the Minister join me in congratulating Bristol prison on achieving 23.05 hours per prisoner per week during April—despite the plethora of bank holidays? More importantly, will the Government support and encourage the development of community prison chaplaincy as a contribution to a diminution in reoffending, especially among short-term prisoners and those on remand?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the efforts of the staff at that prison are obviously to be congratulated. The more hours of purposeful activity that can be encouraged, the better for all prisoners. Of course we support the prison chaplaincy in all its work. It has a considerable and highly desirable impact on the lives of prisoners and is much appreciated by all.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, is the Minister aware and not embarrassed by the fact that I agree with his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia and others, in respect of the alternative to prison for persons who commit serious crimes? I welcome the Minister's conversion to the views of my right honourable and learned friend Michael Howard that prison works. It does, because convicted persons cannot reoffend while they are in prison.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we have heard that response before. I congratulate the noble Lord on agreeing with me.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the fastest increase in the prison population is accounted for by children and young people of 17 years of age and below? That is also the group with the highest reoffending rate, of 80 per cent and more. Does the Minister believe that those figures can justify the claim that prison works for that group?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, prison will always be a necessity. If people commit serious offences, they must expect that prison will be an option. However, we need to make the time they spend in prison useful and valuable, and trust that will make a meaningful contribution—so that when individuals leave prison or young offender institutions, they are better fitted to entering the world of work—which I believe makes a strong contribution to ensuring that offenders do not commit more convictable offences.